Dietary Supplement Ingredients for Pet Health: Searching for Essentials


Pet ingredients for overall health and common conditions.

According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association’s 2009–2010 National Pet Owners Survey, there are 77.5 million owned dogs and 93.6 million owned cats in the United States. For each and every one of these furry creatures, there’s a modern disposition to keep them living longer than they would in the wild. In order for that to happen, pets need adequate nutrition-something not easily obtained from most pet foods. And thus, supplementation becomes a proactive approach.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

As we will discuss throughout this article, most of a pet’s supplemental needs should come from pet food, but today’s pet foods are processed and contain very little of the nutrient-dense meats that cats and dogs would have relied upon in the wild. One critical nutrient is omega-3 fatty acid, naturally found in plants and fish.

“Most pet foods contain more omega-6s than omega-3s, and since omega-3s are more limited in the diet, it’s easier to see beneficial effects from their supplementation,” says Karen Halligan, veterinarian and author of What Every Pet Owner Should Know: Prescriptions for Happy, Healthy Cats and Dogs.

One omega-3 benefit is improved coat and skin health. Halligan says that omega-3s can be used to relieve itching related to allergies and even add a healthy shine to a pet’s coat. “Many vets prescribe fatty acids for shedding, itching, scales, and allergies, usually with favorable results,” says Halligan.

Numerous studies have demonstrated a beneficial effect of omega-3 supplementation on atopic dermatitis in canines, including a reduced need for steroidal drugs like Prednisolone.(1) Still, critics would be eager to point out that the science on dogs and skin health is void of placebo-controlled, randomized trials with control diets to warrant reliability.

Some benefits of omega-3s have been closely linked to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)-an observation also being realized in humans. Several studies have linked diets rich in DHA to improved cognitive and visual health in puppies, whether through their own diets or that of their mothers.(2)

Among numerous other perceived benefits, Halligan notes that omega-3 supplementation may help in areas of cardiovascular support, autoimmune disease therapy, cholesterol reduction, and even osteoarthritis. In a 2010 study performed at two university vet clinics on 38 dogs with the joint disorder, short-term supplementation with fish oil omega-3s resulted in significant improvements in health markers, such as peak vertical force and weight bearing, in 90 days.(3)

Available options for omega-3 pet ingredients are varied, including ingredients that can be directly applied to foods or even sold as individual supplements. Nordic Naturals (Watsonville, CA) recently launched Omega-3 Pet, a liquid drop solution that can be applied orally or directly to food at time of consumption to ensure nutrients don’t get oxidized.


Taurine is a must in the cat’s kitchen. While dogs can synthesize this amino acid from their bodies, cats can do so only minimally. Without the benefit of eating live prey (taurine is naturally found in meat), taurine deficiency becomes a serious problem. Taurine deficiency in cats has been linked to increased risks of health conditions like reproductive failure, dilated cardiomyopathy, and central degeneration of the retina, and impaired growth, motor function, and immune systems.

Sure, meat exists in most of today’s cat foods, but preparation methods can significantly lower amounts of available taurine. This ingredient is also soluble in water, so boiling of pet food will significantly cut down on available taurine.(4)

Taurine deficiency is repeatedly confirmed in cats, but don’t count out dogs. A theory remains that, due to inadequate levels of protein in their diets, these animals may too be at risk of taurine deficiency and, thus, some of the same health problems.(5)


Antioxidants and Vitamins

These nutrients are just as essential for pets as they are for humans. “Antioxidants are your pet’s major defense system against the plague of free radicals, thus keeping their damage to a minimum,” says Halligan. “Pets and people continually produce free radicals as part of normal cell metabolism during everyday activities such as eating, breathing, walking, and even sleeping. Production of free radicals increases dramatically with exercise, stress, disease, and age. The resulting damage can overwhelm an animal’s defense system, resulting in disease.”

Antioxidants include vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, selenium, and zinc.

Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is worth calling out for its particularly high antioxidant capabilities. In a 2006 trial, 10 cats with renal (kidney) insufficiencies were matched with 10 healthy cats. Each cat was fed a control diet or an antioxidant-rich diet for four weeks in crossover fashion. Dietary supplementation with the antioxidant-rich diet, which included vitamins E and C and beta-carotene, appeared to significantly reduce oxidative damage to the DNA of cats with renal insufficiency.(6) With renal failure being an increasingly common condition in felines, antioxidant supplementation is critical.

Vitamin C’s antioxidant potential may also promote better bones in pets.

Halligan says that supplementation of vitamin C should be considered especially for high-activity dogs; they’re thought to require more of it because of their high use of oxygen.


An increasingly common approach to pet immune health is restoring healthy levels of beneficial bacteria in the pet. Just as they are in human markets, prebiotics and probiotics are gaining a stronger presence in the cat and dog markets.

While in vivo research on animals appears a bit thin, that isn’t stopping companies from borrowing off of human science and consumer awareness of these ingredients in human health markets.

For pets, pre- and probiotics are mainly geared for digestive-health and immune-health products.

Ganeden Biotech’s (Mayfield Heights, OH) signature GanedenBC30 Bacillus coagulans strain, already well-situated in the human health market, is now moving into pet markets. The company recently began a partnership with Sprinks Pets (San Diego) to put its probiotic strain in Sprinks’s Regul8 Daily Probiotic chews and ProBio Chew Dental Cookies. The ingredient is also in the new Healthy Goo for dogs. Research studies are currently in planning for GanedenBC30 in pets.

But probiotics are a’plenty. Marketers should always be concerned with the high variety of probiotic strains and their own unique functions. Contact a probiotic ingredient supplier, ask about pet-specific research on strains, and choose one that’s right for your product’s needs.


Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is one of those pesky nutrients that decrease with age. Increasing CoQ10 in the body can provide vital energy support to cells in key places like the heart, kidneys, and liver.

“CoQ10 is an important factor in energy synthesis and is believed to boost the immune system in humans and pets with heart disease and inflammation-especially gingivitis and chronic diseases,” says Halligan. “Cells that benefit the most from the addition of coenzyme Q10 are those that have rapid turnover rates, such as heart cells, gingival cells, mucosal cells of the intestines, and immune-system cells.”

While much CoQ10 research has focused on human health, Halligan notes that cats and dogs have safely supplemented with the nutrient. How would our pets have normally met their CoQ10 needs in the wild? Dietary sources of CoQ10 include fish, organ meats, and, to a lesser extent, some plants.

CoQ10, also known as ubiquinone, is also available in its reduced form as ubiquinol.


Another ingredient found primarily in animal meat, this amino acid is vital for transporting long-chain fatty acids to cell mitochondria. Resulting from its use in energy production is a number of health benefits, including improved cardiovascular health (the heart is where L-carnitine is used most) and improved brain function.

“Humans mostly produce L-carnitine in the liver, kidney, and brain,” says Johnny Lopez, PhD, business manager for the companion animal sector at Lonza Inc. (Allendale, NJ), which supplies Carniking brand L-carnitine for pets. “But dogs and cats can only produce it within the liver. More importantly, the body produces it only during middle age, and then production will eventually drop.”

Halligan notes that clinical signs of L-carnitine deficiency include heart and liver enlargement, fasting hypoglycemia, and muscle weakness.

A 2007 study on beagles supplementing with lipoic acid and L-carnitine for two months found that the combination significantly improved cognitive performance relating to trial tasks-results which confirm previous rat studies.(7)

Bone/Joint Ingredients

Let’s take it as a given that pets’ bones and joints are just as susceptible as humans’ are as they age. And so, there are reasons to consider glucosamine, glycosaminoglycans, and other related ingredients for cats or dogs.

ESM Technologies (Carthage, MO) offers natural eggshell membrane (NEM), a food-based ingredient containing naturally occurring traces of chondroitin, hyaluronic acid, and collagen. ESM makes this ingredient available as a powder or chewable tablet, and with special emphasis on pet use. The company developed its ingredient in conjunction with veterinary support.

Another option is methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), a sulfer compound that may help build collagen and even help reduce scar tissue. “MSM is needed to help keep ligaments, tendons, and joint capsules healthy,” says Halligan. “It’s purported to be an antioxidant, a cell rejuvenator, and a joint healer…MSM is used in animals with arthritis and those recovering from major injuries, and is considered to be very safe.”

Bergstrom Nutrition (Vancouver, WA) offers PurforMSM, a dried-flakes pet version of its OptiMSM human-grade MSM.

With all the options of joint-health ingredients, there still remains an issue of lack of strong science. In truth, there is only a small amount of available pet science on these joint-health ingredients reaching FDA’s gold standard of randomized clinical trials.(8)

But convincing science is out there. In a 2007 study that does appear to have met that gold standard, 35 dogs were assigned to Carprofen (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug for dogs) or a combination of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate for 70 days. At the end of the trial, clinical signs of reduced osteoarthritis with the glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate group were reported as statistically significant.(9)

Ingredient Libraries

Beyond the essentials, there’s a wide variety of ingredients intended for overall pet health and any health condition you can think of. Ecuadorian Rainforest (Belleville, NJ) and Nutraceuticals International (Elmwood Park, NJ) have their own extensive pet health lines in Napoleon’s Choice and, respectively.

Many of the above ingredients, and others, can be found through these companies.

Nutraceuticals International’s new pet line is banking largely off of a new partnership between with Peruvian Nature, a Lima, Peru–based ingredient manufacturer. A number of Peruvian Nature’s ingredients are marketed for pet health, including maca (Lepidium meyenii) for endurance and fertility and cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa) for immune health and other health conditions.

The Napoleon’s Choice line prides itself on ingredients that are ethically wild-harvested, GMO-free, and in some cases kosher-certified. “Pet health is a totally different science,” notes Ecuadorian Rainforest’s Steven Siegel. “Ingredient quality should be on par with that of human ingredients; however the ingredients themselves must be carefully studied because what works in humans may not work in pets. Ecuadorian Rainforest chooses ingredients that are based on science and have been studied by major universities and laboratories.” Featured ingredients range from lavender for calming to motherwort for reproductive health and spirulina for energy.


A serious concern when it comes to feeding dogs and cats is palatability (the taste and smell of food). Most notably with cats, palatability can make or break whether the animal eats-period. Cats are believed to be so picky about the taste and smell of food that they will risk severe nutritional deficiencies based on poor taste of food.(10)

Innovative ways of rectifying this situation are available. One notable development comes from Capsugel (Peapack, NJ). The company’s Licaps capsules have been formulated specifically for the enjoyment of pets, with bacon and pork flavors and fragrances. In-house trials have actually shown an overwhelming majority of dogs will eat these capsules straight out of the hand. It’s a potentially easy way to make those hard-to-stomach nutraceuticals go down.

Even with increased potential for pets to want to consume these ingredients, concern should be given for over-supplementation. Accidental over-dosage of joint-health ingredients in particular has been linked to severe liver damage in dogs.(11) Just be careful.


1. Yy BK Saevik, “A randomized, controlled study to evaluated the steroid sparing effect of essential fatty acid supplementation in the treatment of canine atopic dermatitis,” Veterinary Dermatology, vol. 15, no. 3 (June 2004): 137–145.

2. DS Greco, “Nutritional supplements for pregnant and lactating bitches,” Topics in Companion Animal Medicine, vol. 24, no. 2 (May 2009): 46–48.

3. JK Roush et al., “Evaluation of the effects of dietary supplementation with fish oil omega-3 fatty acids on weight bearing in dogs with osteoarthritis,” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, vol. 236, no. 1 (January 2011): 67–73.

4. AR Spitze et al., “Taurine concentrations in animal feed ingredients; cooking influences taurine content,” Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition, vol. 87, no. 7–8 (August 2003): 251–262.

5. SL Sanderson et al., “Effects of dietary fat and L-carnitine on plasma and whole blood taurine concentrations and cardiac function in healthy dogs fed protein-restricted diets,” American Journal of Veterinary Research, vol. 62, no. 10 (October 2001): 1616–1623.

6. S Yu et al., “Dietary supplements of vitamins E and C and beta-carotene reduce oxidative stress in cats and renal insufficiency,” Veterinary Research Communications, vol. 30, no. 4 (May 2006): 403–413.

7. NW Milgram et al., “Acetyl-L-carnitine and alpha-lipoic acid supplementation of aged beagle dogs improved learning in two landmark discrimination tests,” The FASEB Journal, vol. 21, no. 13 (November 2007): 3756–2762.

8. CL Aragon et al., “Systematic review of clinical trials of treatments for osteoarthritis in dogs,” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, vol. 230, no. 4 (February 2007): 514–521.

9. G McCarthy et al., “Randomized double-blind, positive-controlled trial to assess the efficacy of glucosamine/chondroitin sulfate for the treatment of dogs with osteoarthritis,” The Veterinary Journal, vol. 174, no. 1 (July 2007): 54–61.

10. G Zaghini et al., “Nutritional peculiarities and diet palatability in the cat,” Veterinary Research Communications, vol. 29, supp. 2 (August 2005): 39–44.

11. SA Khan et al., “Accidental overdosage of joint supplements in dogs,” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, vol. 236, no. 5 (March 2010): 509–510.

Related Videos
Nils Hoem and Nutritional Outlook editor Sebastian Krawiec
Related Content
© 2024 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.